For the first time in over half a century, on May 17, the United States Congress held its first hearing on unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Testifying before a House Intelligence subcommittee, Pentagon officials did not disclose additional information from their ongoing investigation of hundreds of unexplained sightings in the sky, news agency AP reported. But, they said they had picked a director for a new task force to coordinate data collection efforts on what the government has officially labeled “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Ronald Moultrie, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said the Pentagon was also trying to destigmatise the issue and encourage pilots and other military personnel to report anything unusual they see. “We want to know what’s out there as much as you want to know what’s out there,” Moultrie told lawmakers, adding that he was a fan of science fiction himself. “We get the questions not just from you. We get it from family and we get them night and day.”
According to AP, lawmakers from both parties say UFOs are a national security concern, citing chances that these aerial objects are Russian or Chinese technologies.
This week, we take a deep dive into the murky universe of UFOs, its many lores, and its many geopolitical and historical implications.
The city of Roswell in New Mexico, United States, sleeps with one foot firmly in the past. On 720 N. Main St. is a strange saucer-shaped structure—reminiscent of popular depictions of an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO)—glimmering red neon at night, very out of touch with its surroundings and, at the same time, very in sync with it. That building is the local McDonald’s, the fast-food joint being just one of the many institutions in the city to celebrate its “alien” heritage. Roswell is speckled with UFO research centres, UFO street-side memorabilia and iconography. All very strange and exotic to outsiders, but seemingly very intimate and rooted to the residents.
Roswell’s claim to fame dates back to June 1947, and the dead heat of the Cold War between US and the Soviet Union. A rancher in a property roughly 50 miles north of the city woke up to the sight of a massive wreckage, purportedly of an airborne craft of unidentified origins, on his property. He would report the incident to the local sheriff, who later referred it to the commanding officer at the Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF). Jesse Marcel, an RAAF officer, was dispatched to investigate the wreckage. What happened next catapulted the incident into one of the most disputed, litigated conspiracy theories in modern human history.
The day after the wreckage was found, the US Army released an explosive press statement—they were in possession of a “flying disk” of unknown origins. The very next day, the 8th Air Force headquarters did a U-turn, stating that the recovered debris belonged to a “weather balloon” and not a UFO. Decades later, the NSA would, in declassified documents, admit that it was not a mere weather balloon but a device from Project Mogul—a top secret scheme in which high-altitude balloons, armed with microphones, were flown to track reverberations of nuclear tests conducted by the Soviets.
Not many bought the official explanation back then. Rumours began to spread fast and far. It started with hushed whispers of the US government coming into possession of an exotic alien craft. It ended with frantic speculations of eyewitnesses having seen several small “alien” bodies strewn by the wreckage site, and which were later carted away by the Army. The official explanation was that the “bodies” were mere “dummies used in parachute tests”.
Mass hysteria followed, with more public “revelations”. As reported in detail by the TIME magazine, a 22-year-old mortician Glenn Dennis claimed that he was contacted about the “availability of child-size coffins and embalming procedures for bodies long exposed to the weather elements”; he followed it up with an even more sensational assertion that he was contacted by a hysterical army nurse who claimed of having aided doctors performing autopsies on “strange, small bodies”.
Jesse Marcel Jr, the son of RAAF officer Marcel who was the first responder on the crash site, claimed that his father brought back home some of the debris from the crash site. Marcel woke up his son, who was 10 at the time of the crash, and excitedly showed him the remains of the alien craft which had “purple-hued hieroglyphics” inscribed on it, The Guardian reported.
The hornet’s nest was well and truly stirred up. The Roswell incident was a conspiracy that extended into the highest echelons of power, claimed a bunch of “whistleblowers” that included names like Kirtland Air Base counter-intelligence officer Richard C. Doty, US army cryptographer Stephen Lovekin and Lt Philip J. Corso.
Their testimonies, recorded in the Steven M. Greer documentary Unacknowledged, were fantastical to say the least. A common thread of their statements: The UFO was an egg-shaped craft, with no levers or flight-calibration systems in the interior. The craft was completely controlled by the hands of the creatures, who were roughly three feet tall. The mangled remains of the aliens at the Roswell site showed an anatomy unlike anything ever seen before—they had big eyes, no ears, four fingers with suction devices and two orifices (presumed noses) on their face. Their heads were shaped different, arms were spindly, and their bodies were grey in colour. One alien was captured partially alive in the aftermath of the accident. The bodies were then taken from the Kirtland Air Base to Los Alamos.
Were they discomfiting truths from seemingly credible sources? Or, were these claims tall tales by veteran law enforcement agents, some of whom are panned by fellow UFOlogists as “plants” from intelligence agencies “to subvert and ridicule the UFO movement”? Wherever the facts might lie, ultimately, Roswell opened the floodgates to a mania that spanned decades and generations.
Think Nevada in the United States, and the first name that jumps to mind will be the glitzy Las Vegas. That haven of gambling and sin, the town that Gonzo legend Hunter S. Thompson described as one where the “reality itself was too twisted”. That derangement becomes more pronounced the moment you step out of the densely populated Clark County and head out into the arid desertlands and the sprawling mountain ranges.
A large portion of Nevada is blacked out, figuratively, in the maps; there are arrays of no-go zones and top-secret bases which are under the sole purview of the United States armed forces. Among them, the most notorious is Area 51, a US air force base that is officially a test site for trial aircraft flights and widely perceived by the conspiratorial public as the key location where the US government conducts secret experiments on confiscated alien vehicles and tiny grey men in captivity.
What was it about Area 51 that inspired so much memes and myths? What was so special about that one sector? The answer to that question dates back to the late 1980s, and a person named Bob Lazar, who, after a series of confessions, rose to prominence as the controversial poster boy of 21st century UFOlogy. He claimed to be a physicist who worked at Area 51, attempting to reverse-engineer alien UFOs, and stated that the US government was in possession of nine such spacecrafts, in all shapes from a disc to a jello mold.
In his most popular public appearance, in a June 2019 episode of the Joe Rogan Experience, Lazar looked a slight man, greying, with owl-like glasses, softly enunciated speech, and occasional migraines (which he blamed on stress) that interrupted his train of thoughts. His tale was incredible. After his work as a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which produced the first atomic bombs, he was hired for what was advertised as an advanced propulsion project at S4, a military base approximately 15 miles south of Area 51. In the facility, by the side of a mountain, he said that he was a given a reactor—a hemisphere the size of a basketball on a metal plate—that operated on a technology that “did not even exist” on Earth. The load-sensing reactor produced a sort of strong gravitational (or anti-gravitational, whichever way you want to put it) field; this meant that no matter how much one tried to touch the orbs, an invisible forcefield repelled the hands much like the same poles of two magnets. No wiring connected any of the sub-components.
The device was, according to him, “borderline magic”. “We can only observe gravity, and not make it. There is no existing technology that brings us even close to creating the force. If indeed you have a machine that makes gravity, imagine the multitude of ways in which you can affect time, or construct force fields. The amount of power we are talking about is astronomical. It broke every single law in the book,” he told Rogan.
He said the craft ran on a fuel that was the stable isotope of an exotic super heavy element, which he dubbed Element 115—something not available naturally anywhere on Earth. The fuel was stable, which meant it wasn’t radioactive and didn’t decay. “It is a unique element in that when exposed to radiation it produces its own anti-gravitational field. It is what is used to help propel crafts and create distortions around it,” he told US television channels.
On one occasion, Lazar said that he was allowed inside the craft, saying that “everything about the craft was impossible”. “Everything was dark pewter in colour, and the entire craft had no right angles anywhere. Every single thing had a radius of curvature. There were three levels—the main level, the gravity amplifiers underneath it, and the gravity emitters under that. It was designed for something much smaller than a human, and you couldn’t stand up until you reached the dead centre of the craft. There were no control panels, nothing of the sort.”
Lazar described a test run of the craft that he had a chance to witness. According to him, the craft took off very quietly, with a small corona discharge (high-voltage bluish glow) at the bottom. The reactor, he said, produces a heart-shaped gravitational distortion around the UFO. “It did some insane manoeuvres, not seeming like it has any business with physics or inertia,” he said.
The incredible acrobatic capabilities that he attributes to the craft ties in with most of the claims over the years about the special capabilities of the UFOs. They seemed capable of operating equally efficiently in land, water and space, moving, as one fighter pilot put it, “like a ping-pong ball in a cup that is shaken back and forth”. It could move close to 5,000 miles an hour, and instantly take a sharp right-angle turn. As Luis ‘Lue’ Elizondo, one of special agents first employed by the US govt to investigate the phenomenon, there were two general observables with the UFOs: they were hypersonic, with otherworldly manoeuvrability that could clean cook any human pilot (an average human can withstand up to 9 g force, and an average terrestrial craft up to 16 g; these UFOs could operate at 300-600 gs, he told The Washington Post).
Are Lazar’s claims believable? The jury is still out on his legitimacy. After his revelations, news reports, citing official sources, alleged that he fabricated his educational background in MIT and CalTech, and that he was never an employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was charged with and arrested for “aiding and abetting a prostitution ring”, a charge to which he later confessed, according to LA Times.
The various sightings of strange crafts in the vicinity of Area 51 were explained away as glimpses of highly classified ultra-new-gen military aircrafts in action. As the Vox reported, Area 51 was the location where the U-2 spy plane and its upgrade in SR-71 Blackbird—both revolutionary new technologies at time—were developed in the midst of the Cold War.
Lazar and his supporters, on their part, claimed that his records were deleted and falsified in the aftermath of his whistleblowing. Las Vegas journalist George Knapp, who was the first mainstream journalist to report the Lazar revelations, came out in support of his background.
Some among the scientific community lambasted Lazar over what he cited as the spacecraft’s gravity propulsion system—a “gravitational envelope that negates any inertial effects”. Was it a blatant dupe? Or did he witness a revolutionary phenomenon way beyond the humankind’s current understanding of physics? There are people who argue for both sides. Theoretical physicists and analysts have highlighted the lacunae in Lazar’s arguments that the craft uses “an intense gravitational field to distort space and time”, citing the destructive effects of the wormhole thus produced. Could what Lazar described be possible in any general relativistic sense? Will it a feat achievable for civilisations millions of years more advanced than us? There are no answers, only questions.
Why then are Lazar’s claims important? His stories from 1989 set off a chain of events, the direct aftershock of which still reverberates in the halls of power in Washington DC.
Not long after he broke the Bob Lazar story (in 1989), Knapp was contacted by an unexpected admirer—a name that he had never heard before. It was Robert Bigelow, an eccentric real estate billionaire and the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, who stated that he has been interested in UFOs for a long time and asked Knapp whether he needed any help (funding). Knapp replied in the negative. Not one to be easily deterred, Bigelow got in touch with Lazar. “A few meetings with Lazar amplified Bigelow’s interest in the topic,” according to Knapp.
This led to the billionaire assembling the NIDSci (National Institute of Discovery Sciences), with names like astronaut Dr Edgar Mitchell and physicist Dr Hal Puthoff, with an aim to investigate paranormal and UFO occurrences from across the globe. The first project that Bigelow took on was the Skinwalker Ranch in Utah; the Uintah Basin was notorious for UFO sightings, and the phenomenon seemed particularly pronounced in the ranch. Bigelow purchased the property in 1996. The owners of the ranch had reported chilling stories of surgically mutilated cattle, strange orbs in the night, disappearing cows, incinerated dogs and holes in the sky through which UFOs emerged and disappeared. The team found nothing. “Every possible natural scientific phenomenon, from hallucinogenic plants to geomagnetic anomalies, was accounted for. It just didn’t add up,” said Knapp.
In 2005, Knapp and Dr Colm Kelleher from NIDSci came out with a book, Hunt for the Skinwalker, in which they recorded the strange occurrences. By 2007, the Bigelow investigations seemed to have caught the attention of the US government. A Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) official—a very impressive man with double PhDs, according to Knapp—expressed interest in visiting the Utah ranch and learning about the investigation. Bigelow introduced the official to his friend Harry Reid, then senator from Nevada and the powerful senate majority leader. After meeting the official, Reid, also consumed by a lifelong curiosity for UFOs, decided to address the issue within the power centres of Washington DC. As The Washington Post reported, he held secret meetings with two colleagues—senators Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye—to help pass $22 million dollars in funding for the Pentagon to start a super secret ‘black money’ programme named Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) to probe UFOs. A Bigelow subsidiary, the sole bidder, won the government contract for AATIP. In the coming years, AATIP proved to be the first gust in a wind of change that was about to sweep the world.
In the US and across the world, aliens and spacecrafts were always considered a topic for the soft-headed and the conspiratorial. Through mainstream media, the US had aggressively debunked all questions on UFOs and completely stigmatised the topic out of public conversation. Most of the sightings were explained away as cosmic phenomena or even ‘radar waves bouncing off temperature inversions’. As the Scientific American reported, documents like the hugely influential Condon study, which stated that UFOs were “simply not a fruitful field in which to seek major discoveries and probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby” came as a big dampener for scientific enquiry. Academic pushback at the time came only from sources like Dr J. Allen Hynek, who rebutted the Condon Report with his books like the UFO Experience and urged constructive engagement with the topic.
Big political figures like Reid and Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, among many others, were massively invested in the subject, but had to keep quiet for political survival. No US president would touch the subject.
In 2017, five years after the Defence Department shut down the AATIP citing ‘dearth of funding’, came the single most impactful development—the New York Times released a detailed expose on the whole programme. $22 million funding? Black money programmes? UFO investigation? There was a massive uproar. Something like an invisible wall came tumbling down. People started speaking out.
Former CIA director John Brennan admitted, according to the New Yorker, that “some of the phenomena could involve a different form of life”. Citing cases like the Pentagon-recognised Nimitz encounter, when a 40-feet long oblong-shaped tic tac craft confronted fighter pilot Commander David Fravor, Senator Marco Rubio flagged “national security threats”. “This could be the technology of a US adversary like Russia or China,” the former vice chair of the senate intelligence committee stated. In 2020, the US Defence Department established the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF) to detect UFOs that could pose national security threats.
Amid the pandemic last year came the most unexpected development. In a $2.3 trillion relief package signed by then US president Donald Trump, a key provision ordered the Pentagon to publicly file a report declassifying everything the government knows about UAP.
There are high hopes that the issue will come to the forefront as one deserving of urgent global scientific scrutiny. It could even come as a great icebreaker for international cooperation between the West and its fiercest adversaries—China is already utilising Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track UFOs. More countries could soon follow suit. More global collaboration efforts could be waiting around the corner.